On my recent trip to Amsterdam for the IFTF event I also visited the FloraHolland auction in Aslsmeer. This is the place where just a short 10 years ago there were about 15 clocks auctioning flowers 6 days a week. Most of you reading this have either been there or have seen images of it on the TV or Internet. Hundreds of men and a few hardy women, sitting in theaters watching intently as the giant clocks began their dance down the pricing wheel. This dance was orchestrated in several halls each day over and over until all of the flowers delivered by local growers or importers were sold or trashed. Each lot sold off to the highest bidder and then packaged up and sent off to some part of the floral world.
At one time the FloralHolland auction house held the title: “The largest building in the world under one roof”. It no longer hold that title but to say it is large is an understatement.
However, today this same giant building is mostly empty. What happened? There are many forces at work but the Internet and the word disintermediation (cut out the middle man) come to mind.
Auctions are cooperatives owned by the local growers and act as the marketing, financial and logistical arm for the flowers and plants they supply. Originally the flowers processed and sold via the auctions were only those grown by the members. As more and more imports began to appear challenging the local growers the auctions had to allow the imports to be sold via the auctions as well. This put grower members in a situation where they were, on one hand, shareholders benefiting in the auctions success and at the same time being hurt by the flood of imports.
Growers and buyers have always struggled to eliminate middlemen and while the auction is clearly a middleman it worked good for all. However, when technology allowed more direct communication between buyer and seller at many levels the need for such a grand building began to diminish. Growers could easily negotiate directly with buyers and eliminate the need to have the flowers pass through the auction process. In these cases the auction acted more as a financial processor but not the marketer. There were several of these large Auction houses around the Netherlands in the 90’s but one by one they started to fail or merge with others.
The changes happened slowly. First the clocks in the halls upgraded to digital displays replacing the giant propeller like mechanical style arms that once indicated the prices. Concurrently the traders in the halls all began using laptop computers so they could communicate real time with buyers around the world, while buying on the clocks, vs just a few phones in their ears. Finally everyone realized that the technology had come so far that traders could watch and buy from virtual auction clocks from where ever they were. Thus eliminating the need to travel to the physical auction. This pressured the Auction houses to adapt to the technology and allow offsite buying a slowly one by one the halls fell silent and so did much of the associated activity. One of the highlights from the glory days of the auctions was watching hundreds of carts (trolleys) full of flowers being driven around an indoor stadium in a colorful chaotic parade by what appeared to be stunt drivers.
To be fair the FloraHolland auction offers their members many valuable services and remains a powerhouse in the Global floral business. They just find themselves with more physical space than is needed for demands of today’s business. The building does make a great place to have a floral Exhibition with plenty of parking, large rooms, facilities all surrounded by everything floral.
I am not sure what the fate of the Grand Auctions houses will be, for sure they still hold the power because they control the flow of money. One thing that has not changed over the centuries is the fact that buyers must settle for their purchases by the end of each business day assuring the growers and suppliers that they will be paid within terms. This is the fiscal backbone of the Auctions strength one they will protect.
I have no doubt that the clever Dutch will find a way to convert these well built facilities into something productive when the last trolley rolls off the floor some day. Until then I am sure there are many trolleys buzzing about somewhere in the cavernous building and I look forward to seeing them again on my next visit.
As I wrapped up my trip to the lovely little country called Holland I can safely say that I love the reality of being somewhere, if only one could avoid the act of getting there. I have been scanned, frisked, searched, questioned and scanned again as I worked my way through the art of traveling that once upon a time was actually fun. I have no issues with all of the security and surrender to the ever so necessary inconvenience. In America petty crime is not something we talk about but in Holland they announce it from the public address system at the airport.
“Pick pockets and thieves are working in this airport so please keep control of your personal items”.
More than ever International travel is for the hardy and healthy not the weak and fragile. No matter how one travels the journeys are filled with all of sorts of personal disruptions. You don’t eat right, sleep right, or even poop right but when you get there everything is “all right”!
William “Williee” Armellini